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ATTENTION PARENTS!! Do you know what your children are being taught in our public schools regarding the origins and history of Islam? Are they learning the truth, or a sanitized, white-washed version of history? Are all religions treated with the same level of accuracy in history? Does it matter?

In a report issued by the American Textbook Council in 2008, several high school and middle school textbooks were reviewed concerning their treatment of Islam in history. The author, Gilbert Sewall, asks the following about these textbooks:

  • How do today’s history textbooks characterize Islam’s foundations and creeds?
  • What changes have occurred in textbook material written before 2001? What additions have been made?
  • What do textbooks say about terrorism? What do they say about the September 11 air attack on the United States? About weapons of mass destruction?
  • Do textbooks outline Islamic challenges to global security? Do they describe and explain looming dangers to the United States and world?

After reviewing these textbooks in light of the following questions, the author concludes:

  • Many political and religious groups try to use the textbook process to their advantage, but the deficiencies in Islam-related lessons are uniquely disturbing. History textbooks present an incomplete and confected view of Islam that misrepresents its foundations and challenges to international security.
  • Misinformation about Islam is more pronounced in junior high school textbooks than high school textbooks.
  • Outright textbook errors about Islam are not the main problem. The more serious failure is the presence of disputed definitions and claims that are presented as established facts.
  • Deficiencies about Islam in textbooks copyrighted before 2001 persist and in some cases have grown worse. Instead of making corrections or adjusting contested facts, publishers and editors defend misinformation and content evasions against the record. Biases persist. Silences are profound and intentional.
  • Islamic activists use multiculturalism and ready-made American political movements, especially those on campus, to advance and justify the makeover of Islam-related textbook content.
  • Particular fault rests with the publishing corporations, boards of directors, and executives who decide what editorial policies their companies will pursue.

You will want to read a copy of the report for yourself. It can be downloaded here.

More highlights from the report, for those who don't have time to read the full 56 pages.

Textbooks reviewed include...


  • Jackson J. Spielvogel, Medieval and Early Modern Times (Glencoe, 2006).
  • Stanley M. Bernstein and Richard Shek, Medieval to Early Modern Times (Holt Rinehart Winston, 2006).
  • Douglas Carnine, Carlos Cortés, Kenneth R. Curtis, and Anita T. Robinson, World History: Medieval and Early Modern Times (McDougal Littell, 2006).
  • Dianne Hart, Medieval and Early Modern Times (Prentice Hall, 2006).
  • Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell, History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond (Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, 2005).

HIGH SCHOOL (World and American History)

  • Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: The Modern World (Prentice Hall, 2007).
  • Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History: Modern Times (Glencoe, 2006).
  • Andrew Cayton, Elisabeth Israels Perry, Linda Reed, and Allan M. Winkler, America: Pathways to the Present (Prentice Hall, 2003, 2005, 2007).
  • Joyce Appelby, Alan Brinkley, Albert S. Broussard, James M. McPherson, and Donald A. Ritchie, The American Vision: Modern Times (Glencoe, 2006).
  • Gerald A. Danzer, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, Larry S. Krieger, Louis E. Wilson, and Nancy Woloch, The Americans: Reconstruction to the Twenty-first Century (McDougal Littell, 2006).

There are differences among the textbooks reviewed. Among the five mass-market seventh-grade world histories adopted by California and examined here, the Prentice Hall volume is easily the best designed and most visually coherent. That does not mean its content on Islam is somehow superior. To describe medieval Spain, in a glaring and anachronistic modern construct, the book labels Islamic Andalusia a “multicultural society.” The Glencoe volume’s comic book–like graphics and abbreviated content make it a substandard text overall, but its relatively neutral treatment of Islam does not fall into the fawning excesses of the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute’s History Alive!

Although publishers have developed new world and U.S. history textbooks at three different grade levels since 2003, they did not use the intervening five years to correct factual information or right the imbalances. They have allowed the errors to remain or have removed controversial material. Instead of making changes, they have sustained errors or, in deliberate acts of self-censorship, have removed controversial material. Deficiencies are more evident at the seventh-grade level than at the high school level. Why?

Among the textbooks examined, the editorial caution that marks coverage of Christian and Jewish beliefs vanishes in presenting Islam’s foundations. With material laden with angels, revelations, miracles, prayers, and sacred exclamations; the story of the Zamzam well; and the titles “Messenger of God” and “Prophet of Islam,” the seventh-grade textbooks cross the line into something other than history, that is, scripture or myth.

The textbooks feature manifold contributions of Islam to the arts and science, expanding coverage to a degree that seems out of proportion to the relative slimness of the material that the same volumes dedicate to European achievements. TCI devotes thirteen text-heavy pages to textiles, calligraphy, design, books, city building, architecture, mathematics, medicine, polo, and chess, some of it spun like cotton candy:

Singing was an essential part of Muslim Spain’s musical culture. Musicians and poets worked together to create songs about love, nature, and the glory of the empire. Vocalists performed the songs accompanied by such instruments as drums, flutes, and lutes. Although this music is lost today, it undoubtedly influenced later musical forms in Europe and North Africa.

The seventh-grade world history textbooks reviewed avoid all conflict and bloodshed in describing Islam’s push out of Arabia and rapid conquest of most of the Mediterranean world. They fail to explain how Islam spread in the seventh and eighth centuries. Islam appears out of nowhere, spreads smoothly and by implication without conflict. Once it was common to state that Islam was spread by the sword. Now, textbooks imply, it moves peacefully with traders. Islam is “brought” to apparently willing populations. People adopt it freely. TCI says, “An Arab man named Muhammad introduced Islam to the people of the Arabian peninsula.” The book continues, “Although the first Muslims lived in Arabia, Islam spread through the Middle East.” But non-Arabs did not passively “become” Muslim. They were conquered. Islam did not just spread. The Arab-Islamic conquest ended many centuries of Greek culture and Christian worship in the eastern Mediterranean. Sudden Muslim control of Syria, Egypt, and Persia was followed by the Muslim conquest of western Africa, Spain, and the Indus Valley.

In explaining jihad, several textbooks make an effort to cleanse it of belligerence. Defining jihad is admittedly difficult, as definitions in circulation vary radically. The common assertion now is that translating jihad as “holy war” is entirely wrong and that old translations are incorrect. But in fact, authorities and scholarship of varying perspectives conceive jihad to be a sacred obligation to extend Islam’s power—religious and territorial—by persuasion or force.

Islamic scripture is inconsistent toward infidels, but a harsh, punitive, and aggressive voice, not a charitable or kindly one, prevails. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, observes that punishment and humiliation are leitmotifs in Qur’anic scripture. Given radical Islam’s mindset, and observing the contemporary clash of the Sunni and Shia sects, Harris wonders why U.S. religious moderates and cultural leaders refuse to look critically at the element of violence inherent in the Islamic project. The idea that Islam is a peaceful religion merely hijacked by a few extremists, Harris and others warn, is a dangerous fantasy. “Fighting is prescribed for you” (2:216) and “Slay the infidel wherever you find them” (4:89) are only two of many suras that suggest a degree of intolerance and aggression. Yet the Islamic organizations that act as academic reviewers for textbook publishers assure editors that jihad is something entirely different. It is a struggle against evil impulses, they say, misunderstood by the rest of us and in no way bellicose. To characterize jihad as holy war, they insist, would be a grave textbook error, yet a 2007 Pentagon-based study shows almost conclusively that Islamic law sanctions violence and that the Islamist threat to world security has a doctrinal basis.

New definitions of jihad started to circulate in U.S. history textbooks and classrooms in the 1990s. The engine was a 1994 Council on Islamic Education “guide” for publishers that maintained jihad meant “‘to exert oneself’ or ‘to strive.’ Other meanings include ‘endeavor, strain, effort, diligence, struggle. . . .’ It should not be understood to mean ‘holy war,’ a common misrepresentation.” Soon, jihad underwent a definitional overhaul. In this amazing cultural reorchestration, the pioneer was a Houghton Mifflin world history textbook, Across the Centuries, still firmly established in junior high schools. Across the Centuries said jihad is a struggle “to do one’s best to resist temptation and overcome evil.” Jihad was reimagined as an “inner struggle” and element of Muslim self-improvement. These changes reflected the intersection of multiculturalism, suddenly a trendy social studies construct, and Houghton Mifflin’s commercial ambitions in social studies. Then and later, appearing from nowhere, the California-based Council on Islamic Education would become a fixture on the textbook scene.

Other seventh-grade textbook definitions of jihad are ambivalent. The Holt volume defines jihad most accurately among the textbooks reviewed as “to make an effort, or to struggle. Jihad refers to the inner struggle people go through in their effort to obey God and behave according to Islamic ways. Jihad can also mean the struggle to defend the Muslim community, or, historically, to convert people to Islam. The word has also been translated as holy war.”

After jihad, in some textbooks, comes Islamic law, shariah, which textbooks spell in a variety of ways. In their definitions, some textbooks lapse into intentional vagueness. The Holt seventh-grade volume says Islamic law “makes no distinction between religious beliefs and daily life.” This is absolutely correct, but the textbook does not explain what this statement means. Shariah is a “law” very different from the one that Americans understand. Separation of church and state is an alien concept to most Muslims. The struggle against the infidel (jihad) is rooted in theological law (shariah). “Shari’ah sets rewards for good behavior and punishments for crimes,” the Holt book says. What are “good behavior” and “crimes”? The volume does not explain, for example, that apostasy is officially a capital crime. Renunciation of Islam may be regarded as treason, not an act of conscience or personal choice. Nor does it explain, for example, that Saudi Arabia and Iran today exact the death penalty for homosexuality. It does not point out that freedom of religion is forbidden in nations throughout the Muslim world.

History textbooks highlight the theme of Islamic tolerance, celebrating what the Prentice Hall volume ludicrously calls a “multicultural society.” Once non-Arabs have been conquered, students learn, those societies and civilizations with non-Islamic systems of belief live in a wonderland of interreligious cooperation. TCI describes how “a unique culture flourished in cities like Cordoba and Toledo, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace.” In the McDougal Littell volume, lesson titles include the “Magic of Baghdad,” “The Glory of Cordoba,” “A Golden Age in the East,” “The Legacy of the Muslim Golden Age,” and “A Golden Age for Jews.”

Note: The report continues in pointing out more glaring inaccuracies. For example, the Crusades are characterized as Christian war against both Jews and Muslims. The texts say nothing about the Crusades being a counter-offensive against 400 years of prior Muslim aggression and subjugation of former Christian and Jewish lands.

The section on terrorism in the report also notes the fact that these textbooks "airbrush" or gloss over radical Islam. Islamic terrorists are characterized as those who have taken the Qur'an out of context and somehow twisted the peaceful nature of Islam. Terrorists are noted as acting out of poverty or ignorance, neither of which are true. Again, "history" textbooks engage in opinion not based in fact.

In summary, the author writes:

In the end the blame for textbook deficiencies rests with the publishers and their governing boards. School publishing is organized in such ways that its managers cannot think about anything other than wide penetration of the mass market, high unit sales, district enrollments, and major state adoptions. Houghton Mifflin and Teachers’ Curriculum Institute are privately held corporations, complicating scrutiny and accountability. Editorial content strategies are designed to deflect protests and to please any number of prickly textbook pressure groups. Reform requires more than the adjustment of a few textbook passages. It requires that school boards, educational administrators, state departments of education, and elected officials at all levels of government take notice of content problems and serve notice to publishers of public objections. Textbook production involves a certain public trust. Therefore, textbook lapses such as these should stir public disrespect and outrage. Parents and civic groups can only complain.  Change requires the action of the corporations, boards of directors, and executives who decide what editorial policies these companies will pursue.